Back in 2017, the Spiked website treated us to a retrospective on former Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP) leader Frank Furedi’s ‘radical life’. This offered a refreshingly innovative take on his previous organisation’s history. Furedi said: “For a lot of people, freedom and democracy were means to something else, to realise some other objective. Whereas, for [the RCP], freedom and democracy were seen as things that were good in and of themselves.” Good that is, unless you were a rank-and-file member or supporter of the RCP, starved of information by a self-selecting and insular ‘elite’ around Furedi at the top of the organisation. This blog has recently documented how the old leadership positively trumpeted the closed nature of its inner sanctum against RCP critics. Call me old-fashioned but it doesn’t exactly reek of Thomas Paine.
Of more lasting interest perhaps is Furedi’s rendering of the background to ‘Midnight in the century’ (1990), an extraordinarily thin article by Frank Richards (Furedi) that informed the RCP’s ideological death spiral. Furedi argued of this period: “You had the Soviet Union being destroyed, which I thought was a really good thing. But the trouble was that if there was no alternative, people would see it as being yet another confirmation that any kind of radical politics wasn’t really on. Under those circumstances, I felt that it really was important to rethink.” This eventually led to Furedi ditching the notion that the working class was a progressive force for change and questioning the relevance of Marxism for the 21st century. Instead, Furedi and his RCP leadership coterie set their sights on a renewed class-neutral ‘Enlightenment’ that stressed rational thought and an unfettered pursuit of human reason to solve society’s woes.
Round about ‘Midnight’
‘Midnight in the century’ is thus retrospectively pictured by Furedi and Spiked as being very much of a piece with this commitment to reason. A calm and thoughtful leader measuring the tides of history and hatching his masterplan. A close reading of the RCP’s weekly paper, The Next Step, from 1989-90 provides little evidence of such rationality, however. Rather, it shows an organisation that was, at times, getting dangerously over-excited at its prospects as a ‘Leninist’ sect, even while it, correctly, foresaw a period of reaction and suffered an inevitable comedown. It wasn’t a ruthless pursuit of reason that informed the conception of ‘Midnight in the century’; it was the more prosaic goal of sect cohesion.
The RCP’s drift between hubris and despondency in 1989-90 is, of course, a common factor among ‘Leninist’ sects. The British Socialist Workers Party (which had been the ‘host’ tendency for the early versions of what was to become the RCP) thus asserted that the 1980s were a ‘downturn’ in the class struggle, while only a few years later its deluded founder was emptily fantasising about demonstrations in support of the miners bringing down the then Major government. Such ‘theories’, always reliant on a set of surface appearances, are instrumentalised abuses of knowledge that rely on discarding contradictions so that ‘reality’ can be brought to heel with the highly partial renderings of this or that sect leadership. ‘Leninist’ sects rely upon the policing of their rank and files away from the rational conduct of internal democracy and towards their mere administration by the leadership. But to keep the rank and file entertained necessitates such leaderships periodically stressing the imminence of the next big breakthrough for their sect and then radically throttling back when such dreams are inevitably dashed. So, the schizophrenia exhibited by the RCP in 1989-90 is nothing particularly novel even though most people have forgotten what its actual political line was in these years, preferring instead to read ‘Midnight in the century’ (and hence Spiked) back onto earlier periods.
‘Strike to win in 1989’
There is a folk memory on the British left that the RCP didn’t support workers engaged in trade union struggles in the 1980s. This is informed by a set of half-memories of the RCP in the miners’ strike of 1984-85, where the group supported the strike but argued that the lack of a national ballot was holding back the miners. (Furedi apparently got punched in the face by a miner during this period because of the RCP’s line.) However, the RCP did support a number of workers’ struggles in the run-up to ‘Midnight in the century’ and, in contrast to the pessimism that was on the immediate horizon, started to get quite excited at the possibilities involved at some points in 1989. Therefore, the RCP supported strikes by ambulance and London Underground workers in 1989 and produced the requisite somnambulant articles that ‘Leninist’ groups always produce about such events. (The picture above this article shows RCP members supporting the strike of London tube workers in 1989.) A statement produced in April 1989 by the RCP Political Committee (i.e. its central leadership) said that the organisation (correctly) saw no return to British class relations of the 1970s and suggested that the RCP’s relations with workers’ struggles was problematic: “As a party we recognise that we have to win people not just to specific ideas but to a commitment to build a revolutionary movement. It is not an easy task to win that kind of commitment, because the objective pressure which could force people towards political involvement is absent. In a period when the class struggle is at a relatively low ebb it is difficult even to convince people to get involved in activity.”
But this wasn’t the morbid pessimism that would become the hallmark of the RCP in the 1990s. In the same month, while Mike Freeman reiterated the point that Britain was not about to return to the class battles of the 1970s, he argued that “if we can begin to rebuild rank-and-file [trade union] organisation around anti-capitalist strategies in the unions, then we can go forward to the nineties”. As the summer proceeded, the RCP showed all the signs of getting over-excited at the prospects for the trade union rank and file. In June, an editorial noted: “What is positive is the unofficial character of the action that has taken place on the underground, buses, railways and in the construction industry, oil rigs and even on the docks. The fact that some workers have seen the need to start organising independently of the official union machine is a welcome development.” By July, this had morphed into: “Activists should view the present strike movement as an opportunity to strengthen our forces for the class struggle in the future. It is likely that we are seeing just the start of many such strikes, out of which an altogether different working-class movement will emerge. When it does, the protest strikes of the present will fade into insignificance compared to the systematic class warfare to come.” Rob Knight rather gave the nature of the game away by suggesting the real reason for this apparent bout of enthusiasm: keeping the group’s supporters occupied (in what the RCP had originally marked out as difficult political terrain) and achieving sect cohesion: “The current round of industrial disputes offers new opportunities for the RCP. It is important for all party supporters to understand the changed situation in which we find ourselves.”
The end of Stalinism
There were other signs of the RCP’s schizophrenic ideological existence at play in its developing analysis of the crises in the Stalinist world in 1989-90. Furedi had produced an excellent book, The Soviet Union demystified: a materialist analysis (essentially a popularisation and systemisation of Hillel Ticktin’s brilliant yet gnomic theoretical understanding of Soviet society), in 1986 but this was rapidly swamped by the RCP’s own sectarian need to keep its membership on the boil.
In common with other Trotskyist groups of the period, the RCP was looking vaguely, but hopefully, at the Soviet working class to positively resolve the country’s mortal crisis. Thus, Rob Knight argued in April 1989: “Let us hope that the fragmentation of the Soviet bureaucracy will continue apace, and that the working class can find a new voice based upon its own collective interests.” On similar lines an editorial from May stated: “As the bureaucracy bends and buckles under the impact of the economic crisis the need for a working-class solution becomes more urgent.” But as the protests against the Chinese Stalinist bureaucracy grew apace in the summer of 1989, the RCP repeated the classic Trotskyist trope of falsely painting demonstrations a deep red, regardless of their political content or context. Therefore, in June 1989, The Next Step was offering the empty truism that: “The millions of workers and students who have brought China to a standstill have shown that the working class has the power to bring down the bureaucracy.” Later that month, Frank Richards (Furedi) was suggesting that events in the country amounted to ‘China’s 1905’ (after the Russian events of 1905, a dress-rehearsal for the democratic revolution of 1917): “Anybody who has been watching the TV or reading the newspapers can only draw tremendous political inspiration from the collective power of the people resisting and fighting back… What is happening in China should give everybody a sense of optimism and hope about the prospects for change.”
What underpinned this less-than-epic bout of sub-SWP ‘enthusiasm’ was also a rudimentary and false notion of political consciousness being transformed by involvement in strikes, protests and the like. One can see this clearly in the following analysis, where the writers could obviously see the problematic state of Soviet proletarian class consciousness as it existed in 1989 and yet they foolishly consoled themselves with the notion that ‘struggle will decide all’. “The only force in Soviet society with the power to change things is the working class. At present the working class has no national… organisations to give it a coherent voice. But as workers are forced into struggle, it is a problem they are increasingly having to confront. The real question now is whether the working class can overcome 70 years of passivity and develop new political organisations capable of overthrowing the bureaucracy which is leading them towards disaster.”
The RCP’s idiot optimism was carried forward into its welcome for the revolts that swept Eastern Europe in late 1989. A blurb on the front page of The Next Step read: “Ordinary people in Eastern Europe have taken to the streets in their hundreds of thousands and shown that mass action can shake a police state to its foundations. The lesson for working-class people in Britain who want to bring down the Thatcher regime is that if they start taking matters into their own hands they too can achieve results.” Present again was the notion previously floated in the summer that these revolts against the Stalinist bureaucracies somehow represented a ‘1905’ for western Europe’s own proletarian revolution: “1989: Leipzig Berlin Prague… 1990: London Bonn Paris” read a particularly daft front-page headline from December. However, there were clear signals from the RCP that it did implicitly understand that the collapse of Stalinism was actually the herald of a ‘period of reaction’ for the revolutionary movement. But even when this was noted it was simply a segue way into the RCP’s official optimism: “The short-term problems caused by the disintegration of Stalinism are far outweighed by its long-term positive consequences. The task facing Marxists is to look to the future and make their ideas relevant to the new circumstances. If this task is confronted properly then there will be nothing to stand in the way of the recreation of a communist tradition which will enjoy real moral authority within the working class.”
‘The revolutionary nineties’
Ultimately, this got made over into a set of over-inflated perspectives for the RCP itself. The Next Step was telling its readers at the end of 1989: “While other parties and papers have declined and disappeared over the eighties, our party and propaganda have gone from strength to strength.” By January 1990, Linda Ryan was stating: “As the world starts to slip out of the control of the imperialist powers, the prospects for building a revolutionary movement are better than ever.” At a Living Marxism conference of 1990 (reported by The Next Step under the title of ‘The revolutionary nineties’) Mike Freeman stated “conditions have never been better for the Marxist project”. Finally, the RCP anchored itself firmly against the pessimism then seen to be plaguing the left, once more working over some negative features of its then-present situation into a positive peroration for the future. “… the Revolutionary Communist Party takes a very positive view of the new era in world politics. We recognise that while in the short term the collapse of Stalinism is likely to lead to a growth in reaction and to boost the confidence of the capitalist class, it also ushers in a new cycle of history and paves the way to recreate Marxism as a genuine alternative to capitalism.” What these assessments in part allude to was the difficulties RCP members and supporters were having on the streets approaching the general public, which were partly making a mockery of the idea that conditions had “never been better” for the Marxist project. As one supporters conference from January 1990 noted: “Selling Living Marxism on the streets has forced most of our supporters to confront anti-communist arguments head on.”
It is then perhaps weird to read this type of analysis from the RCP in 1990, which, only a few months later would flip over into the dourest pessimism concerning the future of working-class communist politics. But it’s only weird if you take Furedi’s posthumous explanation of being involved in some grand intellectual project to re-fashion a radical narrative seriously. When one considers the ridiculously pop-eyed expectations the RCP had for itself as late as mid-1990, it becomes crystal-clear that Furedi needed to step back from such preposterous positions as these were clashing with the rather more prosaic experiences party members and supporters were going through on the streets of Britain (which suggested that the ‘period of reaction’ was going to be more than a mere short-term blip). ‘Midnight in the century’ was thus an attempt by the RCP to step back from its self-inflicted idiocy and to preserve the sect leadership of Furedi, responsible for dreaming up a silly utopia of the ‘revolutionary nineties’. Never before was the call for ‘Enlightenment’ prefaced by such silly trifles.
Since I published this, Evan Smith has produced an interesting blog post that covers some of the terrain explored above. Evan is currently working on an RCP book project. You can support that worthy enterprise by going to his Patreon page.
 F Richards ‘Midnight in the century’ Living Marxism December 1990. ‘Midnight in the century’ was taken from the title of a 1939 novel by Victor Serge about political deportees in the Soviet Union.
 See for example, D Ryan, J Newman ‘“We can win if we’re united”’ The Next Step 5 May 1990.
 ‘Class politics in the age of Thatcher’ The Next Step 28 April 1989.
 M Freeman ‘No return to the seventies’ The Next Step 12 May 1989.
 ‘Strikes’ The Next Step 23 June 1989.
 ‘Striking to win in 1989’ The Next Step 14 July 1989. See also L Ryan ‘Off with the old…’ The Next Step 14 July 1989.
 R Knight ‘Accentuate the positive’ The Next Step 14 July 1989.
 R Knight ‘Gravedigger of communism?’ The Next Step 7 April 1989.
 ‘Stalin’s heir’ The Next Step 5 May 1989.
 ‘Workers need revolution’ The Next Step 9 June 1989.
 F Richards ‘China’s 1905’ The Next Step 16 June 1989.
 R Knight, D Lamb ‘The limits of reform’ The Next Step 13 October 1989. My emphasis.
 The Next Step 24 November 1989.
 The Next Step 1 December 1989.
 ‘Clearing the way for communism’ The Next Step 1 December 1989.
 ‘10 years of The Next Step’ The Next Step 1 December 1989.
 L Ryan ‘What future for the left?’ The Next Step 19 January 1990.
 ‘The revolutionary nineties’ The Next Step 30 March 1990.
 ‘Arguments for communism’ The Next Step 11 May 1990.
 ‘Supporters in conference’ The Next Step 26 January 1990. As a supporter of the RCP myself in Oxford in 1990 I can testify that it was difficult (although not impossible) to approach the public with Living Marxism at this time although, anecdotally, we seemed to do much better than sellers of Socialist Worker and the Morning Star peddling the usual ‘Up the workers!’ dross.
One thing I think that impacted upon Frank F was the lack of working-class activity in Eastern Europe in 1989 (after all, he’s from Hungary). The working class did not play any role as a class, even in an economistic sense, it was part of a process that was set off essentially by sections of the élite, permitted by Head Office once Gorbachev had given the nod.
Yes, there were millions on the streets, but this was not a revolution — Enzo Traverso makes some good points on this, that there are with 1989 none of the symbols of memory that successful and even unsuccessful revolutions have — just a shift sideways into (hopefully) a liberal democracy (which is why liberals love 1989).
I think this, plus the realisation that our exaggerated thoughts of a militant revival (something that I was sceptical about; I tended to agree much more with Frank’s article than the silly things in our press about militancy) were pipe-dreaming, that drove Frank into a deep pall of defeat.
[…] Lawrence Parker has written two very interesting blog posts on the later years of the RCP (here and here), touching on some of the same issues discussed above. Have a […]
Thinking again about the apparent contradiction between the pessimistic ‘Midnight in the Century’ and the blithe optimism and manic activism in the RCP at the time, I wonder if the latter was not an unconscious response to the former, a kind of involuntary ‘whistling past the graveyard’ to ward off the implications of the former?
The article did, if only in an embryonic or nascent form, put the whole Marxist project into jeopardy, as if the working class has suffered a qualitative defeat, then what can be done, and the call to ‘reconstitute’ the working class had a dash of desperation about it. I think that pessimistic thoughts had been developing in Frank Füredi’s head since the defeat of the miners’ strike, although at this point I doubt if they’d cohered into anything definite.
I think that they did cohere in the early 1990s, and this coincided with and were exacerbated by the collapse of the party itself. By the mid-decade I feel that Frank had no idea what to think or what to do, and this was directly reflected in the aimlessness of the latter-day RCP and early Spiked. The final RCP manifesto, The Point Is To Change It, is a 200-page platitudinous ramble that barely rose into the banal. That the remaining RCP cadres decided to follow Frank into a void shows their inability to think critically when it came to their own organisation and leader. Follow the leader — even unto complete aimlessness! It was only amongst the supporters — not amongst the members — that there was any sense of a revolt.
Thanks, Paul. You should write your time as a supporter up. I’d be happy to run it here. Even though this article and the others were published a year or more ago they still get lots of steady traffic.